Racism is endemic in fashion. Naomi Campbell's 'name and shame' might be the answer

The catwalk is white-washed, and industry insiders have been passing the buck for too long. A new tactic from The Diversity Coalition might finally change something.

This year, at New York Fashion Week, 6 per cent of catwalk models were black and 9.1 per cent were Asian. 2 per cent were Latina; 0.3 per cent were categorised as ‘other’. And 82.7 per cent were white.

Like so many scandals in fashion, this could easily have been tacitly ignored by onlookers or resignedly accepted. Instead, a trio of industry insiders – models Naomi Campbell and Iman, and former model agent Bethann Hardison – have branded themselves as The Diversity Coalition and used their uniquely prestigious platforms to name and shame those designers who put on all-white shows at the Fall/Winter New York Fashion Week 2013. A minimalist website run by the three industry heavyweights compiles lists of shows which have excluded non-white models, often headed by names dripping with kudos: Alexander Wang, Victoria Beckham, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta.

The fashion industry isn’t known for its enthusiastic embracement of diversity. Take the so-called ‘size zero debate’: when agents were accused of recruiting models outside the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders as young girls with anorexia left their appointments, the industry responded with a collective shrug of all their bony shoulders. Outspoken commitments to slots for ‘plus size’ models abound, but the shows often fail to materialise. Various countries and Fashion Weeks have announced BMI-based initiatives intended to prevent unhealthily thin models from working and to stem the demand for them - then quietly reneged upon these promises. Pleas from consumers to stop heavily Photoshopped fashion photography that makes models appear impossibly lithe have also been met with the equivalent of a condescending pat on the head (let’s not forget that 84,000 people – mostly teenage girls – signed a petition asking Seventeen magazine to commit to publishing one un-retouched photograph per issue last year, which the teen mag’s editor never properly acted upon. But she did offer the 14 year old author of the petition an internship.)

Where race is concerned, fashion has an equally serious problem. Most of this revolves around passing the buck: agents say that they can’t take on as many non-white models because designers are reluctant to book them, so it’s bad for business. Designers say that because the agents aren’t employing them, they don’t have enough non-white models to choose from to fit their ranges. Make-up artists who have no make-up for darker skin tones and hair stylists who don’t know how to work with black hair argue that they can’t afford to train or buy materials for the types of models they hardly ever encounter. Fashion Week coordinators say that it’s the designers’ responsibility to hire their own clients, and to involve themselves in the process would be anti-capitalist. Magazines argue that the catwalk dictates what and who is ‘in’, and they just follow the money. It’s an age-old story of discrimination: each individual playing a part in a system that excludes certain types of people, and none willing to take any responsibility for it.

How should fashion respond? When someone important enough has brought up the issue in the past, it has been met with a brief surge of shame-faced tokenism on the runway. For the few non-white models who are lucky enough to have fought their way on to agents’ books in the first place, this realistically translates into increased competition between each other, and the driving down of wages. In order to make themselves desirable for the one or two slots available (if there are more than two black models in a show, it's apparently seen as 'a black thing'), these models often agree to work for less money. Once again, non-white employees are underpaid and underrepresented because of the colour of their skin.

According to a Jezebel report depressingly entitled ‘Fashion Week’s models are getting whiter’ – one that backs up statistically what Campbell has already said anecdotally about fashion moving backwards since she first started modelling – the industry is getting worse. But of course, none of these agents, designers, casting directors, fashion coordinators, make-up artists and stylists would individually identify as racist. No longer will this excuse hold, according to The Diversity Coalition. They have pre-empted the argument, and succinctly stated: “No matter the intention, the result is racism.”

Amongst all of their rhetoric and their broken promises, their refusal to ever properly identify or tangibly solve their own unequivocal problems, fashionistas have been caught short by Campbell and co's cool-headed approach. Numbers and names are harder to manipulate than vague 'calls for change' or 'commitments needed for the future'. Anyone can click on The Diversity Coalition's website and see exactly who is part of the problem. If enough people hold these designers to account, the famously inflexible runway royals might even listen.

Perhaps, having had their shows thoroughly named and shamed, we could finally start to see a change from fashion that goes beyond token black models on a white-washed catwalk.

Iman, Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede pose at the 'Blacks In Fashion' panel discussion in New York. Image: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.